In the short story 'Chilli Powder', Gangamma is a fearsome, rich lady who has fields and orchards to call her own in Tamil Nadu. Everyone is in awe of her, except Panchayamma who is often found cutting grass and snagging mangoes from the old woman's fields only because it is barred. Panchayamma boasts of her conquests to the rest of the villagers and how she defies the grand old lady until one day, Gangamma catches hold of her stealing and throws chilli powder into her eyes. The feisty Panchayamma goes wild with rage and starts calling Gangamma "molagapoddi" with her friends.
After desperation for work and wages again leads Panchayamma and her acolytes to Gangamma's plantation to pluck cotton pods, the old lady unleashes the cops on them. What follows is an uproarious ride to the police station where Panchayamma snaps at the policemen and jauntily defends her pilfering with a nagging group of women. "We steal because that is the only way we will not starve, even though we need only a little bit of kanji," says Panchayamma even as the policemen refuse to stop the vehicle for her to take a leak. As soon as they reach the station, Panchayamma and the other women lift their clothes and start peeing there while standing. When the cops raise a stink, pat comes Panchayamma's response,"Ayya, one can hold back one's anger, but not one's piss.”
This is just one such specimen of sparkling wit and liveliness in 'The Ichi Tree Monkey: New and Selected Stories' by Bama, author of the acclaimed novel 'Karukku', which established her as a distinct voice in Dalit literature. The English translation of 'Karukku', Bama's childhood memoir' won the Crossword Prize back in 2001. Bama, born to parents who were labourers, teaches in a primary school in Uthiramerur in Tamil Nadu and certainly has a firm grip on the foibles and idiosyncrasies of her geography. She is also the author of the acclaimed novels Sangati (1994) and Vanmam (2002) and the short story collections Kusumbukaran (1996) and Oru Thathavum Erumaiyum (2003).
In her new collection of 15 short stories, Bama brings her irreverent, incisive gaze to bear upon rural Dalit lives in a Tamil village setting and finds much humour and pathos in their small, everyday uprisings. By turns funny and sorrowful, the stories affirm the resilience of spirit that doesn't ever wallow in victimhood. And the English translation deftly enlivens local idioms and zingers. A few delightful examples include: "When he smiled, his teeth glittered like a kenda fish thrashing in the sun", "with a paunch like a swollen toad stuck to a coconut leaf" or "That woman got so furious she was swaying like an elephant calf gone mad".
From the story about a daughter lost to cunning exploitation to dismantling of hierarchies by calling an upper caste landlord a swine to a no-holds barred prankster beheading snakes and garden lizards, the stories never lose their vitality and vividness.
Book: The Ichi Tree Monkey by Bama
Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books